Walls of piety

City mosques are often the most prominent landmarks of a neighbourhood.

As an Anglicised form of the Arabic word masjid, the mosque is a central institution in an Islamic community, as it serves as the site for daily prayers as well as a place for exchange of community information. The matrimonial and funerary rituals are also performed at the mosques, in addition to celebration of annual religious ceremonies.

Without any census of mosques in Pakistan, the mosques are roughly estimated to be over two hundred thousand in number. Most mosques in the cities are product of community mobilisation and are well representatives of the religious school of thought of the majority of the neighbourhood population. They are generally located in the hub of urban and commercial centres, which consolidate their financial status and gives currency to the thoughts and practices of its affiliated sect or masluq.

The city traders and businessmen freely donate to the income of the mosques. In addition to weekly community contributions, usually after Friday prayers, the rent-received from the leased out shops, constructed along the boundary walls of the mosques, turn the mosques into a lucrative cultural economic enterprise.

With the proliferation of modern urban housing schemes, across the country, there is a concomitant rise in the number of architect-designed mosques, supported by land developers. For the donors, the support to the religious enterprise is taken as a long term investment, not only in the life here after, as it guarantees a palace in the heavens, but also in terms of gaining public legitimacy and political influence. No wonder, the biggest land developer of the country, Malik Riaz, claimed to have built the third largest mosque in the world in Pakistan!

The mosques and madrassas in the cities use a variety of advertising forms to propagate their messages, largely using Urdu as the preferred medium of mass communication. From walk chalking, to advertising banners, and road side fixtures, the custodians of the religious seminaries use the public spaces of cities for mass communication of their wares and wants.

In the first photograph, there is a real estate agent’s shop, carrying an Arabic holy name, Al-Meezan, next to an under constructed mosque. There is walk chalking on the sidewalls of the shop, which offers to sell all sizes of plots in best locations as well as hints through a hand-sign for contributions to the mosque, the house of Allah. At the bottom of the advertised text, there is a pronounced reference to the sectarian affiliations of the founders of the mosque, the Ahl-Hadith. This image is symptomatic of the relationship between the development of urban property as a primary source of wealth and the rise of sectarian identity conflicts in the cities.

Without any form of government administrative control, the mosques are institutions managed by the communities through social consensus. Steeped in the orthodoxy of conflicting sectarian ideologies, the clerics of each mosque tend to carry and propagate their individual interpretation of Islam with zest and zeal. To extend their sphere of influence in the cities through control over mosques, there is never ending power struggle between the members of rival sects, often supported by neighbouring Islamic countries. For the mosques located in the commercial hubs of large cities like Lahore or Karachi, the financial, social and political gains are much higher. The violent conflicts between the Sunni Tehrik and the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat, which play out on the streets of Karachi, are a grim reflection of fierce competition over private sources of financial and ideological power and privilege.

The city traders and businessmen freely donate to mosques. In addition to weekly community contributions, usually after Friday prayers, the rent-received from the leased out shops, constructed along the boundary walls of the mosques, turn the mosques into lucrative cultural economic enterprises

In the second photograph, against a brightly lit white marbled mosque on a roadside in Lahore, hangs a banner, carrying a prohibition on the Eid day. It says, “According to constitutional clauses 295C, Qadianis cannot perform the Islamic sacrificial act of animal slaughter. Anyone found guilty of the sacred act should be reported to the police.” Although the suggestions is in accordance with the law of the land, as the Qadianis are a constitutionally declared minority, yet a pointed reference to it can amount to provocation, given the climate of generalised hatred towards the group. The display of banner at the forefront of the mosque in a highly visible position is a strong indication of the public support and popular endorsements that the statement carries among the local residents.

The clerics of the mosques, as the representatives of the community can play a key role in advocating peaceful co-existence of all religious groups, as equal citizens, and reforming the moral fabric of society. The weekly sermons on Friday are the regular opportunities for the mosque clerics to enlighten their followers to the true teaching of Islam as a religion of peace. Instead, based on the selective interpretations of Islam, the podium of the mosque becomes an instrument to amplify the community prejudices of the members of their respective constituencies.

To propagate their respective schools of thoughts, the financially stable mosques extends themselves into madrassa for children who are largely from the working classes and broken families, and often from far flung areas of Pakistan. In the third photograph, a roadside moneybox is seen, carrying appeals for donation for a madrassa. To persuade public for financial contribution to the madrassa, there is attribution from the saying of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that religious donation off sets “bad death” and evil. To mitigate any hint of coercion, the advertisement clearly asks for contribution with one’s own volition! The whole narrative of the public appeal for charity is reflective of higher moral value assigned to donations for religious enterprises, understood by the people as esteemed acts of religious piety.

The fourth photograph is of a child leaning against the brick lined wall of a mosque in Golra Sharif, Islamabad, with a walk chalking encouraging people to send their kids to the madrassa, “Garland your child with an Islamic education.” The highly emotive, but lonely and shadowed figure of child, in unkempt clothes standing against a brightly lit wall of the local mosque, personifies the child for whom the graffiti is intended.

The photograph carries the poignant reminder to the plight of out of school children, without any prospects for a first grade employment in life.

In most of the madrassas in Pakistan, through rigorous discipline and elaborate rituals, teachings of sectarian Islam are drilled into the impressionable minds of children. Away from parental care and love, the children of madrassa lead austere lives. The last photograph, taken outside a madrassa in Islamabad, is sadly illustrative of the life of the children in religious seminaries. Abandoned by the state and disowned by mainstream society, the madrassas are duly credited for giving refuge to the children from low income groups, who are fed and taught on public charity, raised by public support through city’s signage.

In the photograph, there is a group of children who are being punished by their teacher for being late for the evening prayer. In the foreground, two children are fleeing the scene after taking the punishment, while the rest of children in the background are lining up to extend their hand for taking a beating by the teacher. The poor child on the front stretches his aching palm in pain, while the one following him blushes but smiles at the camera while clinching his fists to hide the shame. The presence of an intruding photographer did not deter the teacher in hot pursuit!

The never-ending spectacle of the public life offers penetrating visual clues to the reconstruction of the social structure of urban life in Pakistan. The city walls of sprawling urban centres form only a fraction of the public culture for a vivid portrayal of ideologies, morals and values of a society.

 

The writer is an anthropologist based in Islamabad and serves as an advisor to the Centre for Culture & Development. He can be reached at notarar@gmail.com

 

 

Published in Daily Times, September 28th 2017.